Oct 17, 2009

Lessons Learned from the Long Arm of the Law

It was a foggy morning in late August and I was running late. I zipped easily around the curves of the unfamiliar suburban road, when suddenly my heart skipped. There he was lurking in the swirling mist, the uniform and large white motorcycle unmistakable. I tapped the brakes and quickly tried to bring the car down to. . .well, I actually wasn’t sure what the speed limit was. But slower is better right? As soon as I’d cruised past the patrolman I glanced in my rearview mirror and my heart sank as he pulled on to the road behind me. I groaned as the dreaded blue and red lights began to whirl. I pulled into a nearby empty bank parking lot and awaited my fate.

It turned out I’d been speeding and I’d been busted. The officer was courteous, even friendly, but steadfast. There’d been complaints from a nearby retirement home about speeders on this road, and I’d been going 51 in a 35. And while, here in America, “five over” the speed limite may be the unwritten rule, 16 over is definitely not. He wrote me a ticket and explained my options. I could go to the courthouse and pay the ticket. I could contest it. Or I could take a one-night traffic safety course and the ticket would be erased from my record (thus sparing me the likely increase in my car insurance). After giving it some thought (and comparing the costs of the ticket--$131—to the cost of the class--$150), I decided to go with the latter.

Besides the money I saved and the clean record, I’m really glad I went to this class, which was held at the end of last month. It gave me a new respect and appreciation for our police officers and the work they do.

I arrived just in the nick of time at 6 P.M. on a Tuesday evening, barely avoiding the irony of speeding to get to my traffic class. The class was a cross-section of Dayton, people of all classes, races, and ages (though perhaps trending a little younger—there were a good number of teen drivers there). Our class was taught by two good-natured officers from the Kettering Police Department, Officers Jen and Joe, if I remember their names correctly.

The class began with a pretest on basic Ohio state traffic laws, and then an informative and interesting seminar by the two officers about the dangers of speeding, drunk driving, and other driving hazards. The class closed with a posttest to ensure we’d gotten the information. We covered a lot I already knew, but I also learned some new things too. But the thing that changed the most for me was not so much my behavior on the road or my knowledge of rules of the road, but my impression of law enforcement.

I confess I always had a vaguely negative impression of “cops.” I’m not sure why. Maybe it was the negative stories in the media about police corruption and abuse. Or too many movies about rogue cops. Or maybe it was just that all the people I knew in high school who wanted to be police officers didn’t seem particular motivated to protect and serve. They, did, however seem pretty excited about carrying a gun. But that night at traffic school changed my perspective.

I learned that police officers are human. There are some that are good at their jobs and some that are not. As much as we’d like for every member of the police force to be a paragon of patience and virtue, the reality is that their field is just like mine: a broad mix of people in a vital profession—one where anything less than excellence is unacceptable and yet is nonetheless filled with people with varying levels of ability, passion for the job, and reasons for getting in to this line of work. All police officers should be great, just all teachers should be great—and the reality is that most of us in both professions are doing our best to reach that high standard. And in both professions, the stars and the stinkers tend to get most of the press (and movie treatments).

I learned that most police officers don’t want to “get you in trouble” (just as most teachers don’t want to give out detentions). They are just doing their jobs—and they understand that while most of us can’t see it, what they are doing is in our best interest. They’ve seen the worst consequences of speeding, drunk driving, texting and driving etc and they’d like to see less of that. I understand now why the officer who ticketed me said “You don’t have to be sorry,” when I apologized. At the time I was mildly peeved. “What do you mean I don’t have to be sorry,” I muttered to myself. “Of course I do, otherwise you wouldn’t be giving me a ticket.” Now I know he was trying to let me know that he knew I wasn’t a bad guy, that I hadn’t intended or caused any harm, his inability to “let me off the hook” notwithstanding. As a teacher, I know full well that without consistent follow-through, the deterrent for bad behavior for even the best of students rapidly disappears.

But perhaps the most compelling lesson I took home that night is that it takes a courageous, committed person to be a police officer. As a teacher, I most often deal with kids for whom there is still hope, no matter how frustrating the child can be. My job is to get those kids out into the world where they can make a positive difference. For police officers, their job is often to get the people we teachers couldn’t reach off the streets and prevent them from doing any further harm. It is by nature a dangerous job, and one that, I’m sure must be disheartening at times. Joe said that much of the time being a police officer is about arriving too late, cleaning up the mess after the damage has done, and most officers are deeply grateful for those moments when they happen to be at the right place at the right time and are able to avert disaster. Every police officer, whether a dedicated public servant or unpleasant guy on a power trip is putting his or her life on the line every single day. Imagine what it would be like going to work everyday knowing that the nature of your job puts your life and safety at increased risk—whether it’s getting out of your patrol car on shoulder of busy freeway, answering a domestic disturbance 911, or a call for backup from one of your colleagues, and in all these situations not knowing what you will encounter.

I still automatically tap the brakes whenever I see a patrol car standing guard on the freeway median, but now as I cruise by at what I hope will seem a reasonable speed, I’m a little more appreciative of the man or woman that sits behind the wheel of the car, radar gun in hand. The work they are doing is necessary and noble, and I salute them for it.

A big thanks to Officers Jen and Joe from the Kettering Police Department for helping one citizen understand a little better how life looks from their side of the badge. Keep up the good work, and stay safe!


Rose said...

well, well, you have managed to change my attitude towards cops a smidgen...well, more than a smidgen. In the future I shall try not to lump every cop I see into the category of rogue cop, which is the type of cop I'm most aware of through the media. Thanks for the positive perspective :-) And the laughs -- you know, like the "irony of speeding to a traffic class" Hehe.

Mai said...

Oh Sean, only you could make such a great post out of that kind of situation! But that's cool that they give the option of taking that class! I have a cop story that I've been wanting to blog about, but just haven't gotten around to yet. It's kinda along the same lines, but kinda different. I'll get to it eventually. :)

Anonymous said...

ha! welcome to the US of A.